Barber: Warriors wilt in 118-109 loss to Raptors

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TORONTO — Can a building win a basketball game?

Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena, it appeared to be a valid question. There’s never one single thing that decides a contest like this, and there was a lot going on in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Pascal Siakam scorched the Warriors with his baseline-to-baseline athleticism. Raptors center Marc Gasol was a factor, as was Draymond Green’s foul trouble, as was Andre Iguodala’s continuing inability to make a 3-pointer.

But if you were with me in Toronto on Thursday night, you felt the energy that coursed through the arena. It practically levitated inanimate objects. It may well have levitated the Raptors. Their coach, Nick Nurse, suggested the crowd noise had mystical properties.

“Well, it gave us a couple nice bounces, I think,” he said after the game. “We had a couple of shots go in that were kind of eye-openers, let’s say. But the fans obviously were great, they were loud, they were excited.”

And they were at least part of the reason Toronto was able to fend off the Warriors for a stunning 118-109 win.

Honestly, you could feel it growing well before Game 1 started. It sounds like the celebration was pretty epic when Kawhi Leonard’s last-second, four-bounce 3-pointer sank the 76ers and sent the Raptors to these Finals.

“I don’t want San Antonio fans to take this the wrong way; obviously, San Antonio’s great,” Raptors wing player Danny Green, who played in two NBA Finals with the Spurs, had said at Media Day on Wednesday. “But I didn’t see people jumping on top of trucks, streets lights and acting crazy. Luckily, no one got arrested. … We couldn’t get out of the tunnel, and how much of a riot it was, because of the win going to the Finals.”

Toronto was buzzing in the days leading up to Game 1, but that’s to be expected in a city hosting the NBA Finals. The difference emerged Thursday morning, when fans began assembling outside the arena.

Some of them gathered in Jurassic Park, the organic public square that forms outside Scotiabank for big games. Others simply began lining up to get into the building. Workers set up chain-link fencing around the front of the pack, making it look like fans were voluntarily walking into cages. From there, the line snaked along Lake Shore Boulevard. By 1 p.m., after the Warriors’ media period was done, there were a couple hundred people waiting. Keep in mind that they wouldn’t be allowed inside for a good six hours.

All over this urbane and cosmopolitan city, the fever was growing. A couple of movie theater chains opened their doors for watch parties. One of them was practically across the street from my hotel. And as I walked past it Thursday afternoon, someone inside a huge and elaborate dinosaur suit — it had a loud, mechanical roar and a Warriors jersey in its jaws — stomped around the sidewalk, drawing attention to the watch party. When the velociraptor wheeled around to head into the lobby, its tail knocked a fan in the head.

This was the sort of over-the-top spectacle that had gripped Toronto. And it came to a head in Scotiabank Arena as game time approached. When a trio known as the Tenors sang “O Canada,” right after someone else handled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the crowd drowned out the professionals in belting out the last line: “Oh, Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Every NBA city believes it has the loudest fans, the most raucous home venue. And truthfully, when the stakes are high, all of them are difficult places for visiting teams to play. But I’ve never heard anywhere louder than Scotiabank on Thursday — including Oracle Arena, one of basketball’s proven terrordomes.

“The fans are amazing, man,” said Siakam, the star of the game. “I just want to say that. From coming out for warmup to the end of the game, it was just the support and then going crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Warriors fans should be able to relate. There was a time when they were the lovable underdogs of the NBA, rather crewmembers of a roving Death Star. Remember the “We Believe” team of 2007? I guarantee you that when those Warriors bumped off the No. 1-seed Mavericks in the first round, fans left Oracle convinced they had helped to swing the outcome. Raptors fans must have felt the same way Thursday night. And I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong.

The kinship goes deeper than upstart teams. Oakland has always felt a bit ignored, even slighted, in its proximity to San Francisco. Despite being a vibrant and interesting city, it can’t shake its minor-league status. Canada must feel the same way in the shadow of the United States. Canadians might not want to trade places with us — certainly not right now — but they must get sick of the one-way flow of name-brand products and pop culture.

That’s probably why these Raptors watch parties, according to news reports, spread all over Canada. A CBC News story talked about an East Coast Jurassic Park forming in downtown Halifax, which I believe is a city in Nova Scotia, which I believe is a Canadian province that might or might not be inhabited by narwhals.

The Raptors were born in 1995, and this is the first time they have played in the NBA Finals. That’s a long time to wait for a crack at history, and you can sense the pride this version of the team has bestowed upon its backers — especially after embarrassing playoff stumbles in the previous three seasons.

It’s a great story. But here’s the thing. At least two of these games will be played in Oakland. And the emotional force of Game 1 just isn’t sustainable over the entire series. Or more to the point, it won’t affect the two teams as radically.

Thursday’s game was the opening blow. It was a strong one. The Warriors absorbed it, though, and they will fight back. That’s not to say they’ll win four games. The Raptors are a worthy opponent, and they are playing with outsized confidence, and the last time I checked, Kevin Durant was still in street clothes.

But if the Warriors don’t prevail — if their championship run is interrupted, or even ended — it won’t be because of the Canadian basketball fans. That was a Game 1 thing. And give the North its due. It was pretty fun to watch.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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